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A year later we look back at Harry Cohen

August 29, 2012
By Cavalier Dave Forrester of Hugh M Cummings High School


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Harry Cohen, back, and his mother Jennifer and stepfather Richard Kaffenberger and siblings, Carter and Cana, posed for a 2010 Christmas family portrait.
Jon Upchurch/Williams High School
Harry Cohen was the quarterback for Williams High School's football team.
Jon Upchurch/Williams High School
Harry Cohen playing baseball for Williams High School during his junior year.
Jon Upchurch/Williams High School
Harry Cohen leads his Williams High School football team during the second game of 2011 season against Southern Alamance High School
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A year later: Remembering Harry Cohen

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Jennifer and Richard Kaffenberger spent the past year attending every one of Williams High School’s football, basketball and baseball games.

They went to awards banquets, concerts, musicals, dance performances and plays. They were there when the Williams High yearbook staff officially presented the 2011-12 edition to the school, unveiling for the first time the finished product, the people it was dedicated to and the theme: “what really matters.”

They, along with Cohen's father Harold E. Cohen, watched as the many young people who knew, loved, were inspired by and grew up with their son, Harry Cohen, crossed the stage on graduation night in June.

Cohen's family accepted a diploma in his place surrounded by the sound of thunderous applause and the embrace of a community determined to ease their pain.

“It’s what we had planned on doing anyway,” said Richard Kaffenberger, Cohen’s stepfather. “It was Harry’s senior year.”

Cohen died last August at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill from cardiac arrest caused by an accidental methadone overdose. It was just three days after Cohen, the then-quarterback for the Williams High football team, played a hard game against Southern Alamance leading his team to a 27-17 victory.

He was 17 and in the first weeks of his senior year. Then, just like that, on Aug. 28, 2011 — on a Sunday morning as his family readied for church — Cohen didn’t wake up. He was rushed to the hospital. Family and friends kept vigil, hoping and praying for a miracle. The next day, after repeated tests to check for brain activity, he was removed from life support.

Cohen’s heart stopped beating at 7:54 p.m. Aug. 29, 2011, and his parents began an agonizing journey that seemingly has no end. The Kaffenbergers are part of what they refer to as a “silent fraternity” of parents who have endured losing a child — a searing pain they wish on no one.

“Every day is a hard day,” Jennifer Kaffenberger said. “It’s a conscious effort to get up.”

Together, they push through the grief, knowing their days will be filled with highs and lows and that it’s all part of what their “new normal” looks like.

“I feel like I’m on an old country road,” Richard Kaffenberger said. “Sometimes, it’s smooth as glass and the next half mile is nothing but potholes. The scenery changes. The road is never consistent. You never know what will be around each corner. Other parents, who have gone through this and are farther down the road, they’ve helped us.”

There are many Sundays they just can’t make it to church. Knowing that one Sunday morning everything changed, that familiar morning ritual of waking up and getting ready is still too painful. But they try. Sometimes they get dressed and make it out the door, only to turn around again, hoping the next week will be different.

One Sunday, they all — the Kaffenbergers and their 4 1/2-year-old twins, Carter and Cana — finally made it all the way to the church doors and then Cana asked to ride on her dad’s shoulders because that was the way her big brother always carried her in.

Overwhelmed by the request, Richard and Jennifer fought the desire to turn around and go home. Instead, they walked in to church with tears streaming down their faces and Cana on Richard’s shoulders and Carter on Jennifer’s, determined to get through another day.

“It’s five steps forward and three steps back,” Jennifer Kaffenberger said. “I guess that will be the way it is the rest of our life.”

They still expect Cohen to walk in the door or down the stairs from his room. They long for the sound of his voice or a text message. They hope they’ll awaken to a new and different morning — one that still has their son here alive, well and thriving — but that day doesn’t come.

“He’s supposed to be here,” Richard Kaffenberger said.

They’ve asked ‘why’ many, many times. Why did their son have to die? Why was he taken so young? Why couldn’t they go before him? It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s unnatural for a child to go first.

In grief counseling, Jennifer grapples with making peace with it all.

“I was trying to make myself believe that somewhere there was a good enough reason he’s not here,” she said.

In his life, Cohen touched so many people whether it was with his infectious smile or uncanny ability to make his peers feel comfortable and accepted. In his death, hearts ached. Bonds deepened. Lives changed and many for the better.

A school of students united together to honor one of their own. A class of seniors put aside petty differences, cliques and all the minor distractions that kept them from focusing on the lessons their classmate’s fate taught them. That’s why the theme of the 2011-12 Williams High yearbook, which was dedicated to Cohen and teacher Jon Upchurch, was “what really matters.”

They learned firsthand the value of strong relationships, good decisions and the power of love, and as they struggled with an inexorable reality — life is precious and sometimes ends too soon — they found out what really mattered was them. It was a discovery that deeply touched the Kaffenbergers, who were honored to accept that first yearbook from students.

For those who haven’t walked in their shoes, it might be difficult to understand but when the Kaffenbergers learned that Cohen was brain dead and couldn’t survive without life support, they had two main concerns: Would Carter and Cana remember their big brother and was Cohen’s fellow senior class going to get it?

The services offered through KidsPath, a nonprofit program that is part of Hospice and Palliative Care Center of Alamance-Caswell and provides free counseling and support for children and teens coping with loss, have convinced them that Cohen’s siblings will never forget their brother.

And in the past year, the actions of Cohen’s friends, classmates, teammates and even strangers, people who never met Cohen but were somehow impacted by his story, have reassured and comforted them in their time of tremendous need.

“They get it,” Richard Kaffenberger said.

Tough games were played. Songs were written. Art created. Dances performed.

A year filled with firsts — those significant days when Cohen’s absence would feel unbearable — was softened by the cards, letters, visits and phone calls. On Mother’s Day, Jennifer Kaffenberger’s cell phone filled up with text messages from Cohen’s friends sharing thoughts and memories.

It’s an immeasurable loss that the Kaffenbergers likened to a crater that runs wide and deep, and there is no answer that will ever satisfy them when they question what it’s all for.

“No reason will ever be enough,” Jennifer Kaffenberger said.

And those acts of kindness, the memories shared and the many ways in which their community has reached out might seem like pebbles thrown into a hole that will never be filled, but they understand those gestures — both big and small — are precious stones that help them cope one rough moment at a time.

“It does bring us comfort,” Richard Kaffenberger said. “If we didn’t have that, it would be harder to get through.”

This evening at 6:30 p.m., the Kaffenbergers will gather with family and friends at Cohen’s gravesite at Alamance Memorial Park. They will celebrate his life with stories and songs.

At 7:54 p.m., Jennifer Kaffenberger will let go of the first of more than 50 paper lanterns that will light up the sky. Across the state, many of Cohen’s friends, the ones who are beginning their first year of college, will do the same to honor the son, brother, athlete, student and friend who left an indelible mark on all of them.

And they will remember.




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